VANCOUVER—Sixty-nine shipping containers of festering Canadian trash have been loaded onto a container ship in the Philippine port of Subic and are expected to depart toward the Port of Vancouver today.
For years, the Philippines have been asking Canada to repatriate its trash. In 2013 and 2014, a private Canadian company, Chronic Inc., shipped 103 containers of garbage, wrongly labelled as recycling, to the Philippines, setting off a diplomatic dumpster fire.
In a particularly heated moment last month, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to declare war with Canada if the dozens of garbage-filled containers were not dealt with. Canada has agreed to repatriate the 69 containers that still haven’t been disposed of.
On Tuesday, the Malaysian government also announced it would return thousands of tons of imported plastic waste back to the U.S., Canada and Japan. The practice of countries sending their non-recyclable waste to poorer nations is “grossly unfair” and should stop, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Thursday.
Developed countries often send recyclables overseas, where other countries make a business out of reusing them or breaking them down.
The years-long dispute over the garbage in the Philippines highlights the need for stronger regulations aimed at decreasing consumption and increasing reuse and refurbishment, experts have told Star Vancouver.
Here’s what you need to know about the growing controversy.
How did Canadian garbage end up in the Philippines and Malaysia?
Until 2018, China handled recyclable waste from around the world and reprocessed it to create new materials. But China ended this policy, in part because they received too many contaminated materials that couldn’t be reused. Israel Dunmade, a sustainable engineering professor at Mount Royal University, speculated these Canadian containers may have ended up in the Philippines, labelled as recycling, after being turned away from China for holding contaminated waste.
Malaysia is demanding Canada pay to take back a shipping container filled to bursting with plastic grocery bags and packaging the Malaysian government says is too contaminated to be recycled. Ottawa is still investigating the Malaysian situation — though the green plastic Loblaws bag and made-in-Canada stamps on other packages in the container make it difficult to deny where the waste originated.
What does international law say?
International law is on the side of the Philippines and Malaysia. The United Nations’ Basel Convention is an international treaty that went into force in 1992 and forbids countries from dumping illegal waste in developing nations without their informed consent. Canada has ratified this convention, meaning it’s legally bound to it. The convention also states that if the receiving country declares the waste as hazardous, the exporting country has to take it back.
However, Ottawa has refused to support a full ban on the dumping of hazardous waste in developing countries. The proposed amendment would strengthen the Basel Convention and has already been supported by numerous signatories, including the European Union. But support from two more is needed to bring the Ban Amendment, as it’s known, into force. Environmental organizations say stronger enforcement is critical.
What is the role and responsibility of private companies?
Chronic Inc. is the private waste management firm that sent the garbage wrongly labelled as recycling to the Philippines. In 2014 the company’s owner denied the allegations to the Star. Now, Chronic Inc. appears to be dormant. A Toronto Star reporter visited a Whitby, Ont., address associated with the company and found the doors locked and no one home.
The Government of Canada has not taken legal action against Chronic Inc. because it was not breaking any Canadian rules at the time, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada told Star Vancouver.
What are Canada’s regulations on shipping garbage abroad?
Canada introduced new regulations in 2016 requiring exporters to get permits to ship waste that other countries would consider hazardous, including trash. The changes came as a result of the diplomatic dust-up with the Philippines.
The federal government has issued no permits for Canadian companies to ship trash overseas since regulations changed three years ago but Canadian garbage is still showing up unwanted in Asian nations.
What is Canada planning to do to address criticisms?
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna thinks there is clearly a “broader lesson” for the world in all of this. “Developing countries don’t want to receive plastic goods, they don’t want our waste,” she said Wednesday.
She intends to unveil a strategy next month to get at the roots of the problem, including cutting down on the production and use of single-use plastics, putting more onus on producers of plastic to pay for the problem and improving recycling.
This latest garbage embarrassment is shining new light on what Greenpeace Canada calls the “myth of recycling.”
“I think it is a shock to Canadians that we ship so much garbage overseas,” said Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s oceans and plastics campaign.
With files from Andrew Jeffrey, Kenyon Wallace, the Canadian Press and the Associated Press
Joanna Chiu is a reporter and managing editor of Star Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu
Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank